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San Diego State University


Marina Martinez

Summer Immersion Reflections

Spring 2016


Originally, I wanted to become a teacher, but after substitute teaching and having one-on-one experiences with students who were undergoing personal trauma, I decided I wanted to do something more. At that same time, I was going through a new journey in my own life, learning about mental health issues with my brother, who it turned out is schizophrenic. My family wasn’t familiar with mental health issues, so it was a learning experience for all of us.

My now husband introduced me to the field of school psychology, and I decided that was the field for me. I could do counseling, mental health, support students through special ed, do consultations with teachers, and still work in education. It matches my personality, being flexible and not knowing what’s going to happen next. It looks different every day, and that’s something I like.


I went to a presentation on grants, and that’s where I learned about CLASS EL. People’s individual stories about going on immersions struck me the most.

I went on Chiapas on my first immersion, and it was definitely memorable. We were split between 3 different schools, which were located outside of the main town. The needs were so high, and the support was so low. In one school, there were 3 classrooms for first/second, third/fourth, and fifth/sixth graders. They all shared one teacher, who had to run back and forth. Luckily they had a volunteer, who’d go in daily and work with the 5th & 6th graders. So that meant there was one teacher for all the grades up to grade 4.

For the month we were there, my and I took on the 3rd and 4th graders. We’d be the classroom teachers for the 3 hours that we were there, at the same time we were trying to do interventions. All the students in that school were Spanish learners, and they spoke the indigenous local language, and it’s a spoken language. They couldn’t be literate in their first language, because it’s not a written one. Their teacher was trying to get written materials in this language, but it was hard.

We communicated in Spanish with the 3rd and 4th graders, and their Spanish was pretty good — it was better than mine at the time. Lots of these students worked. They knew the bus schedules and how to get around. After school, they’d ride into the town and work until late at night selling candy on the streets, or whatever their parents were selling at the time. They knew how to go home and take care of the sheep, how to grind to the corn to make tortillas. They grew the corn and dried the corn. These kids knew how to grind it to make tortillas, or how to take whole kernels off to make pozole. We didn’t look at them the way we look at 3rd and 4th graders in the U.S. They were more like a teenager or a high school student would be, here. They have responsibilities to take care of the family, from such an early age, and it’s a team mindset.

Their goal was graduating 6th grade. That was their target. What was really hard for me, was that I didn’t see them learning. The first few days we were there, we just observed to see how the teaching and learning was happening. After that, we stepped in and started teaching. We were there at the end of the year, and they were preparing a show for the parents. There’s always a show at the end of each academic year, where the kids perform traditional dances. At the end of our month, I remember the students being upset that we were leaving. They said they weren’t going to learn anything any more, if we weren’t there. I never met any students who wanted to learn as badly as these students. Just teaching them basic reading skills, it was like I was giving them something priceless.

Oaxaca and Merida

The attitude in Oaxaca was different. They’re comparatively more affluent there, more middle class. Chiapas is very low income. They were living day to day, trying to sell things and make enough for the family to survive. For lunch, students would eat a tostada or pork rinds, or one tortilla with butter on it. In Oaxaca, the kids would have a whole lunch that the family had sent for them, so there was a big difference.

In Merida, some of the parents would travel long distances to get their student to school. They couldn’t bus back home easily, so they’d wait all day until school was over. That school in particular was just for special ed students who are more on the severe end of the spectrum. There are only so many schools like this, so the parents had to travel great distances to get their child educated.

Immersion sweat lodge

One of the more impactful immersion events was going to a sweat lodge in Merida that was connected to the indigenous culture of the area. This was something I’d never expected. The whole immersion group went. First they blessed us, and put us thru a process of being cleansed. I tried to go with an open mind and heart, and not judge anything that was going on, just accept the way they respected nature and how much they valued personal growth and reflection. There wasn’t any talking and it felt like a personal journey, but it bonded us as a group.

It was very small, very dark, a little hut made of some kind of clay or cement, so it really kept the heat in. There was a water hole right outside. We crawled in, squished in, maybe 20 of us, for about 45 minutes. They brought in heated lava rocks and closed the door, and the heat was trapped with us, and we were sweating like crazy. There were moments when I felt scared, and then the guide, an older man, would talk us through it, relaxing, being calm. It was about controlling our mind and our breathing. Then we did chanting together, and he started singing about connections between nature and our bodies. “Water is our blood, wind is our breath.” I cried. He had us think about our different emotions at the time and told us to let it go. I experienced anger, some anxiety, peace . . .

I went through so many emotions in that time, and I could hear other people crying, too. It was pitch dark. It was hard to breathe, it was so hot, and everyone was sweating. We went in wearing bathing suits. When we came out, we were baptized and water was poured over us, and that was releasing our emotions. When we all came out, it really did feel like we were being born again, like a new start and letting go of pent up anger that I had toward different people in my life. There were so many people crying when we came out. I would recommend anyone to go through a sweat lodge experience with the right guidance. I want to do it again.

Loss of language

Before I joined the grant, I had traveled to Jalisco, to Guadalajara. That’s where I went to learn Spanish. I went the first time for 5 months, and then I returned again for 3 months, and that was the extent of my traveling far into Mexico at the time. I had visited border towns along the border with Texas. These border towns are very different from any towns that are located further in. Going to Guadalajara to study Spanish was hard for me to. It’s like I had to work through part of my identity. I’ve always lived in the U.S., and grew up in Sunnyside, a small town in Washington state that’s about 85% Latino. I consider myself Mexican-American, but when I was growing up, I’d get comments like “You’re not Mexican.” I’d feel uncomfortable, not being able to speak or understand Spanish. I was even told by people, “Why don’t you speak Spanish? Why don’t you value your culture?” But at the same time I wasn’t an Anglo, either.

Going to Mexico made me reflect a lot more on the guilt and shame I felt growing up not speaking Spanish. My grandparents only speak Spanish. Not being able to communicate with them was very shameful for me, so I’d avoid them. I felt I was disappointing them, but at the same time I’d try to stay close and try to get to know them without speaking with them directly. Now, my dad says there’s never a day that he doesn’t regret not teaching us Spanish. My parents didn’t intentionally do that. They just focused so much on the English — they didn’t want us to be looked down on by other students or by teachers. But my parents love the fact that I can speak Spanish now.

The more I learned through Class EL, the more I saw what happened to my parents. Their first language was Spanish, and with effort, English became their dominant language. But they never became really proficient.

In Guadalajara, I was re-experiencing the shame when I went out to the community to buy things in the market or talk to other students, and they’d realize I didn’t speak Spanish correctly. I’d form sentences in odd ways, even though I had a good accent. One guy said he thought I was special needs, because I wasn’t able to express myself clearly and would get frustrated. So I was embarrassed. Every time I had an interaction, lots of memories came back to me.

CLASS EL has helped me to deal with some of the anger. I fused to feel a lot of anger because I wasn’t taught Spanish. I understand now, what happened to my family, my language, my culture. I can express myself more clearly now, when someone judges me for not learning Spanish. I can tell the story, and say “This is is why. This is how it can happen.” The story of my family, what happened to me and my language — how culture can be lost. This gives me a sense of pride and confidence, that I took that steps to bring the language back to my family, and generations to come.

Now I’m able to speak with my grandmothers, both of them. Two months ago, my sister brought a baby into the family, and I’m an aunt now. I have 5 siblings, and I’m the only one who speaks Spanish. I have a goal that I’ll teach my siblings Spanish when I return home to Sunnyside. When I go visit my grandma, I let my sisters know, so they can come along and I can translate and bridge that relationship. When I talk to families now, I like to share my story, what happened to my family, so that parents don’t overlook the language.

Achieving Spanish fluency

When I started on the grant, I was definitely interested in developing my Spanish skills. Even today, it’s something I keep working on, continuing to develop my skills to become a bilingual school psychologist. I want to return home to Sunnyside to work, and to support the families there, I’ll need to really be fluent.

My Spanish has developed so much over the past few years. Now, I speak comfortably, and I help to interpret at school meetings. If the parents need an interpreter, I can do that. When I present my results after an evaluation, I can do it in Spanish. In my first year on the grant, and even my second, I couldn’t. But by my 3rd year, I presented my first IEP in Spanish. The grant kept reminding me in weekly classes to practice and set goals. The first year, we sat down and listed a number of activities we could do to advance our Spanish listening, reading and writing, and our professional Spanish. My goal was to I read newspaper articles, and listen only to Spanish music in my car, and I promised myself I would make phone calls to my grandma. And I would do written reflections in Spanish. The first year, writing in Spanish was really difficult, but by my third year I was able to write a reflection without having to depend on Google Translate.

We are planning to move back to Washington after I graduate. My husband’s hometown is about 20 minutes from mine. I see everything we learned in CLASS EL as being so valuable. My mom works with English learners in the schools there, in a reading mastery program, and I’ve already served as a consultant to her.

When you’re teaching English, one of the most important things is recognizing how much the students already have in their first language. We’ve learned a lot about bridging language and culture, and lots of words that are similar between languages. They’re called cognates. Examples are the words similar, motivation, dedication, education — the words are the same in both languages. I shared this with my mom, a list of cognates that are very similar in English and Spanish. This helped her students to understand that they can connect these English words with the Spanish ones they already know. As they continue to develop their academic language, they will also continue to develop their basic language skills in Spanish at home.

Oaxaca 2015

On this trip, we worked in a private school, and I was a Graduate Assistant. Originally, we were supposed to go to a public school, but all the public teachers were on strike at the time, and the public schools were shut. So at the last minute, this private school became our new destination, and we walked in blind. I had to take a leadership position as a GA, and in my second language. I was supervising pairs of trainees on the grant, students who were doing interventions at the school. Each pair — one school psychologist and one bilingual teacher — had to complete an academic or behavioral intervention in the classroom.

There was a lot more structure in the school than there had been in Chiapas. Each class had books, workbooks, its own teacher. We would ask the teacher where she saw a need in the classroom. Maybe there were several students who struggled with math or reading, or there was some bullying was going on. The teacher would determine the needs, and the pair would develop an intervention based on those needs.

As a GA, I met with the administrators and school psychologist, and we asked all our trainee pairs to report to us on their particular classroom needs. Then we worked on what the intervention for the school as a whole should be, and it turned out that behavior was the area of concern for the whole school.

We developed an intervention plan for reinforcing students for following positive behavioral expectations, and we presented a teacher workshop near the beginning of immersion. Our program teaches us to take a step back and observe to understand the culture of the school or the experience you find yourself in. We had to do this so quickly, it almost felt opposite of what we were being trained to do. We had to jump in and make quick judgments in this short time, but the school was really open to us. Teachers were involved and really participated, so that was gratifying.

In our positive reinforcement system, we defined what good behavior looked like, and how it supported the values of the school as a whole. Then at the classroom level, each teacher needed to recognize so many students each day for good behavior. We worked together, brainstorming different ideas and strategies they could use and providing feedback. It was a lot of work crammed into one month. At the same time, we were having fun on the weekends, going on excursions and experiencing different parts of the local culture. And taking Spanish classes, of course.

A chain of support

As a GA in my third year immersion, I realized there was a lot of background planning and mentorship going on that I had been unaware of when I was a trainee. Being a GA, we lived with Carol and became very close with her. Throughout the immersion, she was guiding us as serving as a consultant in our relationship with our mentees. She was guiding us on how to guide them, so there was this chain of support going on. She wasn’t directly guiding the trainees, but she was guiding them through us. For example, she’d observe and listen as we provided supervision to them, and then she would give us feedback on how we had supervised. So there were these layers of reflection and feedback going on in the immersion. It took me to deeper and deeper levels of experience.

We’d meet to debrief and talk about what we were experiencing in relation to our leadership confidence, or our Spanish language communication, and Carol would guide us in very gentle but meaningful ways. It helped me learn about myself and how I respond in certain situations, more than I’d ever done before.

I took this with me. In every experience I have now, I ask myself, “What difference does that make in your life?” That’s a Carol question. If I’m going through something, I do that on my own now, and I do the same thing with my middle school students. Say they tell me about something nice that their parents or a teacher did for them, or a strategy they’re currently using, like maybe a breathing technique to reduce stress. I ask them, “What difference does that make in your life?” This helps them take a moment to look at it critically, look deeper, at the meaning and purpose behind things. Carol guided us to find the purpose behind our actions.

I really feel like being on the grant has taken me to a whole different level. I don’t know what it would have been like to be in the program but not be part of the grant. It’s been an amazing experience.

"I really feel like being on the grant has taken me to a whole different level. I don’t know what it would have been like to be in the program but not be part of the grant. It’s been an amazing experience."